Madeline Kripke, lexicunt

Among many other things, Madeline Kripke was a collector of dictionaries and other language books. At her death, in April 2020, an early victim of the Covid-19 pandemic, she left behind more than 20,000 books, boxes full of manuscripts — from an early Merriam-Webster archive to her own purchasing records, essential to determining the provenance of her many acquisitions — and ephemera, so much that she could barely move in her Greenwich Village apartment. But impressive as they are, the numbers are less important than her curation: she wasn’t a hoarder, and she didn’t collect accidentally or on a whim, but purposefully and with great knowledge of the history of people’s interest in language. She was a formidable scholar who chose to exercise her intelligence, not by teaching in a university, but by curating a peerless private collection. Much of that collection is devoted to strong language or language adjacent to it.

Madeline left Omaha, Nebraska, for New York City to attend Barnard College and she never turned back. She was an editor, then a dealer in rare books, and then, because her circumstances allowed it (her parents were friends of Warren Buffett and original investors in Berkshire Hathaway), she stopped selling books and collected them full-time. Eventually, they overflowed from her apartment into a couple of storage units, but in the meantime, scholars from around the world consulted her, visited her apartment to view unique works she had at hand and hear what she knew about them.

Many of her dictionaries are venerable, dating essentially from the beginning of printing in the West, but others are distributed across the centuries. One finds what one expects to find in a great dictionary collection: the Calepino; the Florio; Samuel Johnson’s dictionary in full, in miniature, and everything in between; all Noah Webster; all Eric Partridge; and so much more, with titles in Latin, Greek, and Hebrew, as well as vernaculars North and South, East and West. We know this much from a catalogue of roughly a third of the collection, which runs to 1909 pages; or 726, 978 words; or 4,492,966 characters and spaces. It’s a lot: a lot of dictionaries and a lot of details, with fractions of dictionary, language, and cultural wisdom accumulating character by character.

I don’t assume that those interested in strong language are interested only in strong language, so Madeline’s dictionaries of ordinary language may warrant the attention of those who follow this blog. But Madeline specialized in slang, profanity, and obscenity. She identified one side of her apartment as “the slang wall.” She collected Tijuana Bibles, and her shelves also supported copies of books about the sexual and sociological phenomena that underlie profanity, cant, argot, and slang. She was a professional book dealer with a business card, but she was a dealer with attitude and a profane sense of humor — turn the card from its official to its backside, and she announces herself as “LEXICUNT.”

In that role, she collected all sorts of blue books. Some are unique artifacts in the history of strong language, for instance, copies of the first, and second editions of Francis Grose’s A Classical Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue (1785 onwards) annotated by Grose himself. Others represent times when writing and publishing so-called obscenity was risky business, works like Allen Walker Read’s Lexical Epigraphy of the Western United States (75 copies printed by the Obelisk Press, Paris, in 1935). Still others celebrate the loosening of verbal taboo in the United States, like Clyde Crobaugh’s Abusive Words, or How to Cuss Effectively (1956) and John F. Trimbles’ 5,000 Adult Sex Words and Phrases (1966). Readers of this blog don’t need the advice, of course, but such books tell us about the status of profanity and obscenity in their time.

The collection is a cornucopia of treasures like the Adventures and Hard Luck of Snippy Gertie and Unicycle Slim, described as follows in the incomplete catalogue:

Signed by both authors on p. [xii]. “Typography by Slim; binding by Snippy; plant of Whittier News Company. March 1921. All Rights Reserved. Mr. and Mrs. Geo. F. Mitchell, General Delivery, Los Angeles, Calif.”— t. p. Approximately 100 copies    printed and not for sale, according to the foreword. “Glossary of hobo slang used herein”: p. [vii]-[viii]. Lengthy, detailed account of the authors’ experiences riding the rails between Texas and California in 1920-1921. The authors were tramp printers and set and printed this volume themselves on the press of the Whittier News Co. where they were employed in March 1921.

Tramp printers? Hobo slang? 100 copies? Signed by both authors? No collector could ask for more, nor could any scholar of dictionaries, or slang, or slang dictionaries, or American culture. And you’ve noticed, I’m sure, that I’m not working very hard to discover examples like these. Corbaugh, Trimble, and the Mitchells all appear on the first 27 pages of the incomplete catalogue (just over 1% of the total), with lots of interesting works described between them. Most of the books in Madeline’s collection are as interesting as Slim and Snippy’s, either in their contents, or as cultural artifacts, or both. One could appraise the collection for tax purposes and arrive at a dollar value, but really, it’s priceless.

After Madeline died, her collection found a new home, far away from her Perry Street apartment (she had moved from West 11th, because she needed more room for books), in the Lilly Library at Indiana University, in Bloomington, where I teach. Given its size and complexity, it will be some time before it’s processed, catalogued, and available to those interested in what interested Madeline. In the meantime, I’ll provide a preview of what the collection holds in a blog titled “Unpacking the Kripke Collection,” available here: Kripke Collection | IUB Libraries Blogs ( The introductory post includes links to accounts of Madeline’s life and collection. Then, each week, I’ll post about one or two or a few related items pulled more or less at random from the roughly 1,500 boxes of Kripke material. I’ll keep at it for as long as I can or until the collection is finally open to the public. For the time being, it’s the best we can do. Posts are already waiting for you to read, and I hope you’ll explore the collection with me and celebrate Madeline Kripke’s legacy, strong language and all.


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